Israel's Controversial Passport Bill Might Quell Donations From Russian Oligarchs

Under the current law, immigrants receive a passport after a year and by proving their lives are based in Israel unless they donate to Israeli groups or Jewish education abroad.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman
Olivier Fitoussi

Fundraisers for Israeli institutions fear that if a bill passes giving new immigrants a passport immediately, rich businesspeople from former Soviet states will stop donating to these groups which profit greatly for recommending that a donor receive a passport or renewal.

Many of these so-called oligarchs consider an Israeli passport vital for giving them freedom of movement in Europe and the United States.

Under the current law, new immigrants receive a passport only after a year and only after proving that their lives are based in Israel. The law was amended between 2004 and 2007, making it possible for immigrants to receive a passport even if their lives are not based in Israel on condition they contribute to the Israeli economy or Jewish education abroad.

A government official who receives requests from institutions decides on such cases.

The amendments helped create a thriving industry of middlemen who raise funds for institutions in exchange for recommendations that help donors win approval for a passport.

In 2014, Channel 9's Maya Zinshtein reported on this industry; nearly 200 passports had been awarded via these special recommendations. The report documented Rabbi Pinchas Althaus seeking a donation for the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and remembrance center, as well as a $20,000 brokers fee, in exchange for a passport for the donor.

Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party is currently pushing a bill that would undo the donation condition. Instead, any new immigrant not requesting immigrant benefits would receive a passport immediately upon arrival in Israel.

The bill passed in a preliminary vote despite the opposition of the police, who say crime groups from former Soviet countries use the passports. Lieberman, who is also defense minister, called the police’s contention a “hate crime” against immigration from the former Soviet Union.

Fundraisers working for Israeli NGOs and other institutions told TheMarker they feared that if the new bill passed, it would severely undermine the current process.

“Russian oligarchs also donate money to protect their reputations, and many do it because they want the Israeli passport,” one source said. “If the passport law passes, the knock-on effect is that donations to organizations will plummet.”

Another fundraiser said, “There are people who work in arranging passports for a fee. Everybody benefits. The broker makes a living, the institution receives a donation, they ingratiate themselves with the minister and the donor receives an asset in hand.”

One organization liable to suffer from a drop in donations is Yad Vashem, which was mentioned in the Channel 9 exposé. Yad Vashem officials do not hide their pleasure in giving a passport recommendation to a loyal donor. Yad Vashem gives recommendations both for passports and three-year extensions for donors who still live abroad.

One major donor to Yad Vashem is Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress and a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kantor, who made his fortune in fertilizers, received Israeli citizenship 10 years ago but has never lived in the country, spending most of his time in Switzerland and Russia.

Kantor donated 20,000 shekels ($5,530) in 2012 to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in the Likud primary. Yad Vashem appointed him vice chairman and regularly gives Kantor recommendations.

“Moshe Kantor has contributed much to Yad Vashem’s Holocaust remembrance activities, helped its mission and held events and activities to memorialize the Holocaust worldwide," Yad Vashem said in a statement.

"The recommendation for extending passports is given by Yad Vashem's management. Indeed, after a number of years in which Kantor was significantly active in memorializing the Holocaust, Yad Vashem recommended extending his passport in line with the criteria of the government decision."